Lear: CORDELIA!!! WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU WEARING???
Ambition is thicker than blood
King Lear is ready to turn his realm over to his three daughters. His plan is simple: Give the biggest piece to the daughter who loves him most. But honeyed words and hubris blind Lear to the true motives of those around him, plunging king and kingdom into a hell of treachery, madness and unspeakable acts—with consequences that reveal the worst and best in human nature.
King Lear is a hard play. It’s physically demanding for the actors, it’s emotionally harrowing for the audience, and nobody gets a happy ending. The story and the characters are so strong that no flashy sets or brilliant costumes are needed, and Bill Rauch’s version of the play strips it down to only the most essential elements.
In part, the minimalist set is due to the design of the performance space in the Thomas Theater. It’s a theater-in-the-round, with seats on all sides, so it’s impossible to set up elaborate building facades or elaborate scaffolding. Instead, a few pieces of furniture – a black throne, candelabra, and perhaps a table or a chair – were all the set decoration provided. Costumes were contemporary, for the most part. After the elaborate staging of The Taming of the Shrew, King Lear felt even more subdued and restrained.
There were some extremely creative elements. The Fool first appears on stage wearing a black suit, looking clean and attractive. As the play progresses, his appearance begins to mirror the unraveling of Lear’s mind. As the King becomes more unhinged, the Fool’s suit jacket disappears and is replaced by clothes made of newspaper, food wrappers, and shopping bags. By his last appearance, the Fool resembles a medieval jester instead of a fresh-faced business executive, with his clothing made of pieces of trash. Then, he disappears as Lear’s world falls apart. (I’ve always wondered what happened to the Fool. He just vanishes from the text. I mean, Christopher Moore wrote a whole novel (and is working on a sequel) based on the character, but what was Shakespeare’s intention?
One of the most depressing things about King Lear is that it’s a meditation on aging, and the loss of control experienced by the elderly. There’s the loss of physical power – Lear gives up control of his kingdom to his daughters, only to learn that once you’re a king in name only, no one has to listen to you anymore. But more haunting and disturbing is the loss of mental control. Everyone has known an elderly person who through dementia or Alzheimer’s or a stroke has lost some of their mental capacity. It’s a huge struggle for adult children to care for their declining parents – even when they are patient and kind and loving individuals. But there are always those children who don’t want the responsibility of caring for the aged, and like Regan and Goneril will abuse or punish those who raised them. In Lear’s situation, it’s somewhat deserved – he chose to listen to empty flattery over the true words of his daughter Cordelia –but it always makes me think of the men and women who didn’t do anything wrong but end up in crummy situations because they have poor caregivers.